“Your love will carry me safely through”: War, Hope, and Reasons to Live

On February 14, 1864, Captain Robert Thompson Cornwall of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry wrote a brief, six-line letter to his wife from Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. He dated the letter February 15, but a diary entry suggests he wrote it on St. Valentine’s Day.

MY DEAR LILLIE: —Am still quite well. Received a letter from you dated Jan 24th last evening. Feel happy in the reassurance that all are well, and that our dear little darling is doing so well in his way. I frequently find myself imagining how you all look. My supply of commissaries is getting very low. Boxes arrive here by the boat load, but for months none have been issued, save now and then one as a special favor. Last Friday, the farce of allowing the owners to receive the “perishable” articles (already perished) in a few of them was gravely enacted. My love to all. Robert[i]

Though he seemed hesitant to write his deeper thoughts in letters that prison guards would censor, the thoughts of his family and his love for his wife sustained Robert through 10 months of imprisonment and his other months of military service.

Robert and Lydia “Lillie” Cornwall (photographs from “Libby Prison and Beyond”)

Robert T. Cornwall had been born on January 29, 1835, and had attended Monticello Academy in New York and then graduated from the University of Northern Pennsylvania. During the late 1850s, he taught at several schools in rural New York and Pennsylvania, before settling in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. He married Lydia Ann Jackson on May 3, 1859, and two years later, on August 18, 1861, their first son—Gibbons “Gibbie” Gray Cornwall—was born. The Civil War separated this little family the following year when Robert joined the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, mustering as a captain and joining the regiment near Camp Parole at Annapolis, Maryland. Lydia—called “Lillie” by her husband—did not want him to go, but seems to have eventually been resigned to his departure and prepared supplies, stockings, and food boxes to send to her absent husband. Over the next two years, the couple corresponded regularly, and 262 of Robert’s letters have survived, though only one of Lillie’s has surfaced.

Robert’s letters to Lillie usually ended with phrases of affection, most often “Truly your own, Robert” and expressions of love for their little son. During his multi-year absence, he worried that his son would not remember him and delighted to hear about his antics, growth, and verbal development progress. Lillie sent photographs of Gibbie on at least two occasions, and Robert showed off the images of his toddler to everyone in the camp.

On her own in Pennsylvania in autumn 1862, Lillie decided to move from Indiana County to West Chester, Pennsylvania, to be closer to family. Robert assured her that he trusted her judgment for deciding what to keep, store, or sell of their possessions, and included encouragement: “Mid your troubles my dear keep up a serene stout heart. You have the love of Heaven, the consciousness of right, and the assurance of a heart full of love here to support you.”[ii]

Within weeks of his arrival at military camp, Robert started planning for Lillie to visit him, promising her, “Nearly all the officers who are married have had their wives here and it makes me very anxious to see mine. You can be well accommodated at a hotel or if you prefer at a very nice private house.”[iii] But only “kind and loving” letters filled Robert’s winter days during early 1863, partly due to weather and partly to his delayed pay. However, by the beginning of February, he sent a detailed letter of traveling directions and the promise to meet Lillie at the train station on the appointed day. Military orders destroyed his hopes for the visit as the regiment was ordered to move to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, just at the time Lillie was supposed to arrive. Sadly, Robert telegraphed his wife the change of plans, and a few days later wrote in a letter: “On Monday evening I went to the Depot to see if you had come, for I did not know but I almost hoped that my telegraphic dispatch had not reached you. I did want to see you so much, even though it was but for a few hours.”[iv] Once the regiment settled into camp and duties near Harpers Ferry, Lillie came to visit at some point in March or April 1863, staying with a Unionist family in or near town.

Lillie visited Robert when the 67th Pennsylvania was posted near Harpers Ferry.

The visit ended before the 67th Pennsylvania had their first fighting skirmish with Mosby’s Rangers on May 6, 1863. A few weeks later, Robert became seriously ill with typhoid fever and eventually lay in a military hospital in Berryville, Virginia. There, he was captured on June 13 as Confederates from Ewell’s Second Corps advanced through the northern Shenandoah Valley. His captors moved him to Winchester, Virginia, and placed him under guard in the hospital at the Taylor Hotel where he remained for a lengthy convalescence. At the beginning of August, Robert was sent by railroad to Richmond, and on August 6, 1863, he entered Libby Prison – a prisoner of war quarters for Union officers.

Lillie wrote to Union authorities who helped send her inquiries to Confederates about Robert’s location and physical condition. By August 31, she received confirmation that he was still alive and in Libby Prison. Several times during the autumn, she sent boxes of provisions to Robert which supplemented the meager prison diet and contributed to his comparatively good health for the duration of his imprisonment.

Libby Prison

Robert spent his days in Libby Prison studying German, playing chess, taking care of sick comrades, carving bone trinkets, reading, and standing near freezing, open windows to escape the stench of the overflowing privies. He eagerly waited for letters and as the months dragged on, those letters from Lillie became his lifeline. In his diary on January 19, 1864, Robert wrote: “I received a letter towards evening from Lillie. Oh, how anxiously expected, and it came. What shall I say of it? It was like her and what can I say more in its praise.”[v] The next day he added: “I received another letter this morning of an earlier date (Dec. 2) than the one received yesterday. These letters do me so much good, and though they remind me forcibly of my dear little family at home and make me long to be in their midst once again, yet they in some way impart strength to me to bear against my thronged yet solitary condition.”[vi]

By February 1864, Lillie’s letters became even more important. The cold, reduced rations, prisoner escapes (which added to the detainees’ sufferings), and mental strain of seemingly endless months tested Robert’s resolve. “Time here is a burden, a tormentor, a bore. There are few officers here who would not willingly have stricken from their lives the portion that is still to be spent in this hole.”[vii]

“Libby Prison” by David G. Blythe

Then, suddenly, on April 30—after more than 10 months as a prisoner of war—Robert Cornwall was exchanged and sent northward. He spent the month of May and much of June at home on medical leave, struggling with continuing intestinal illness and other effects of Libby Prison. With his family, Robert’s diary and letters are silent, but when he returned to military service, his affectionate letters were more reflective—likely influenced by his release from prison and weeks at home. He joined the staff of the Third Division of the VI Corps at the end of June 1864 as its provost marshal, overseeing military discipline and policing. Robert fought at the battle of Monocacy in July and then marched through Maryland and Virginia as the summer campaigns continued.

On August 3, 1864, after cataloging the marches and fights, Robert concluded:

“My Dear Lillie, a man who has a sweet wife and child has no business in the army so far as any personal considerations are concerned. That is my proposition. I would advise a military man never to love a woman. I am no Captain. I am entirely unfit to command men, to say nothing of holding a position where I have more to do with the discipline of a Division than perhaps any other man in it. No, I am a baby— yes, a baby, and feel that if I was with you and Gibbie again I would not leave. Lillie — if I know myself, it is not the fear of battles, for somehow I feel that your prayers, your love, and that of our darling or something else connected with you will carry me safely through all the bullets and shells the Confederacy can mould, nor is it yet the hardships of the service which I fear or of which I become weary. [emphasis original]

No, it is rather that one is separated from everything one loves and cherishes, from every joy and attraction attendant upon a civilized state of society, — from almost every source of intellectual improvement….

You may conclude that I have all of a sudden become terribly home-loving and service-sick. Allow me to caution you against such a conclusion. I do not know that I am now any more anxious to see this war concluded that at any other time since its commencement. Nor must you conclude that my associations are of an unpleasant character. Quite the reverse. Still, I must admit that it arises more from my good fortune than from any necessity in the cause. I only insist that a man who wishes to enjoy himself in the army ought not to love a sweet wife.”[viii]

About a week later, Robert declined the idea going to visit friends in Harpers Ferry (probably the family that Lillie had stayed with the previous year) in favor of dreaming vividly on paper about his wife:

“No, I have no particular interest in going and having a formal talk with some lady who has no more interest in me than she has in mankind in general. Whose heart has no responsive throb for every joy and sorrow known to my own. In short and in plain there is a dear lady I know who would put her arms around my neck and caress and kiss me, and who at all times is mine as I am hers. —She I would go to see now— at all times — in rain or shine, as far as a leave of absence would carry me.”[ix]

Again, in mid-August, he wrote about his love of wife, son, and home:

“My dearest, you alone can perhaps appreciate the pride I take in my little family at home. You will not doubt that my love for it elevates the tone of my mind above the coarse and sensual modes of enjoyment so indulged in army life. Ah, Lille, what sacrifice is too great for your love. I am sure I take no delight or permanent interest in any thing in which you are not concerned. Ah it is exquisite to live for those who live for me.”[x]

Robert Cornwall survived the 1864 Valley Campaign, present at most of the large battles and eyeing the “The Burning” and soldiers’ foraging from his post as provost marshal. His last, saved letter detailed the battle of Cedar Creek, and then on October 27, 1864, Robert’s enlistment ended and he was discharged from military service—free to honorably return to Lillie and Gibbie.

Returning to civilian life, Robert studied law and was admitted to the bar in December 1866. A successful and respected lawyer, he practiced for 56 years. He was an active community member, too, serving on the boards of local banks, in a unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard, and within the local camps of the Grand Army of the Republic and Loyal Legion. He attended a regimental reunion for the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry in 1889 at Monocacy battlefield. Lillie and Robert had four more children and lived to enjoy life together as parents and grandparents. Lillie died on February 1, 1907, but Robert lived until April 26, 1927.

Toward the end of his life, a reporter asked Robert about his longevity secret. “I have never desired to stop living, and for that reason I believe there is no mystery in the number of years I have lived.”[xi] Robert did not elaborate to the reporter if he had learned that lesson during his Civil War years, but his war letters hint that he had discovered a hope for life and an abiding love that carried him through battle, imprisonment, and illness.

Robert’s love for Lillie steadied him and gave him a reason to live. He hoped for their future: “Let us be joyful that we live and love and in the anticipation of earthly and heavenly joys in years to come, when this cruel war is a creature only of history and memory.”[xii] “You are cherished,”[xiii] he had assured his wife, shortly after her visit to Harpers Ferry, and he ended another war letter, softly promising, “Good night my dearest, Sleep sweetly for I am well, and my heart is with you.”[xiv] Captain Robert Cornwall’s letters reveal an affection that gave him a reason to live. Perhaps love helped to keep him alive on the freezing days of hardship in Libby Prison in February 1864.


[i] Robert Thompson Cornwall, edited by Thomas M. Boaz, Libby Prison and Beyond: A Union staff officer in the East, 1862-1865 (Shippensburg: Burd Street Press, 1999), 105.

[ii] Ibid., 16.

[iii] Ibid., 18.

[iv] Ibid., 34.

[v] Ibid., 68-69.

[vi] Ibid., 70.

[vii] Ibid., 103.

[viii] Ibid., 155-156.

[ix] Ibid., 170.

[x] Ibid., 175.

[xi] Ibid., 186.

[xii] Ibid., 171.

[xiii] Ibid., 38.

[xiv] Ibid., 25.

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